Over the years, I’ve learned to mostly suppress my knee-jerk reaction when I see renderings of yet another glass tower on yet another Brooklyn street corner or read about a row of old mixed-use buildings being demolished for a generic new “luxury” one. I am no NIMBY — I know, intellectually, that the city is desperately in need of housing and there’s no point in getting moony over a three-unit brick walk-up — but I still have to remind myself that more housing and more density does require more development. Even if it’s not affordable, or to my taste, or doing much — if anything — to move the needle on rents in the neighborhood where it’s rising, it needs to happen. It’s usually a given that the retail will be characterless, a little local charm will drip away, and the whole thing will line the pockets of people whose pockets don’t need more lining. Even so, we need this, I tell myself.
So when I saw that a five-story tenement block of Third Avenue and 75th Street was being replaced by an 18-story apartment tower, I suppressed my grumbles at first. In the spring of 2021, the site sold for $32.4 million to a luxury-condo developer, EJS, which recently filed permits with the Department of Buildings for a 214-foot building that would contain 38 apartments, averaging 2,500-square-feet each (condos, presumably). There does not appear to be any retail. The low-rise tenements the condo tower is replacing had a total of 43 units plus retail space (the Candle Cafe, Bistro Le Steak, and a bodega). Bigger buildings with fewer units are not as uncommon as you might think, although rarely is the comparison so stark: an 18-story tower with fewer apartments than the cluster of four- and five-story buildings it’s replacing.
Historically, the Upper East Side has been one of the city’s densest neighborhoods, but building upward does not necessarily add to the density of people. Although Manhattan overall added 50,423 units of housing between January 1, 2010, and June 30, 2020, the Upper East Side would have recorded a net loss of 81 units if not for some new building on Roosevelt Island. On this score, it’s in last place among the borough’s 58 community districts, according to a report from the Department of City Planning: “In some affluent areas closest to job centers — particularly the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village/Soho/Noho — unit losses significantly offset additions.” Which is notable, given that the Upper East Side has seen something of a building boom in recent years. “You can’t make the argument that that’s developing for density and affordability,” Matthew Murphy, the executive director of NYU’s Furman Center, told me. “It’s just pure wealth, frankly.”
The project on Third and 75th Street is supposed to incorporate some affordable apartments, according to Patch; EJS didn’t respond to several requests for comment, but it seems unlikely that the building will be rentals (not at 2,500 square feet apiece, at least) or that the inclusionary housing would be in the building, if it happens at all. The apartments it will replace weren’t low income, but they were modest, the kind of place a young professional leaving a roommate situation might move into: nice enough, no-frills spaces, mostly one-bedrooms, that rented for around $2,500 a month. They were walk-ups with small bedrooms and kitchens, a few with perks that an average New Yorker would consider semi-luxurious: washer-dryers, a gas fireplace, a back terrace.
Redevelopment tends toward the luxurious for the simple reason that once you’re building tall, the difference in construction price between a luxury apartment and a plain one is modest — but the difference in selling price is not. In the past, as a building aged or a neighborhood became less fashionable, it was usually taken over by less wealthy residents. The replacement was usually at least as dense as what came before it: the mansions along Fifth Avenue giving way to the opulent high-rise co-ops that stand there today. That, together with the mid-century urban shift away from single-family houses into efficient high-rises, meant that virtually every replacement added a lot of units. The big 1950s and 1960s white-brick and brown-brick towers on Second and Third Avenue, for example, are absolute hives of studios and one-bedrooms. If you had money and wanted a family-size place back then, you probably moved to the suburbs.
People want more space in town now, and luxury buyers especially do. Manhattan is far less crowded than it was in 1900, when not only tenements were densely packed but even the most luxurious houses and apartments contained larger families, often extended ones including a grandparent or maiden aunt, as well as live-in servants. Since 1970, the city as a whole has become less dense as the population has grown, falling from an average of 2.7 people in each housing unit in 1970 to 2.4 in 2010, according to a 2015 report from the Furman Center. New apartments are much larger than they were; the average size of an apartment citywide has increased every year since 2000. While it’s not uncommon to find older apartment buildings of only studios or one-bedrooms, zoning doesn’t allow for it today — it’s too dense. Even if a developer wanted to build one (doubtful; lots of people buy after they have kids), he’d have to add larger units into the mix. You don’t see towers full of those little apartments going up anymore—unless you count the microunits at Carmel Place, a pilot of overfancy designed-up units that was, apparently, a one-off.
In this boom, the math of development favors roomier apartments more than ever. Another recent EJS development at 150 East 78th Street has 25 units spread over 16 floors; they’re all half- and full-floor apartments. The five active listings range from a $6 million 2,200-square-foot three-bedroom to a 3,800-square-foot five-bedroom listed at $16.95 million. (Of those, all but the largest is in contract.) That building was designed by Robert A.M. Stern, known for 15 Central Park West — a building that replaced several vacant lots and the 365-room Mayflower Hotel, which housed some rent-controlled tenants, with a tower of 200 palatial apartments. There is also, of course, the less dramatic but far more prevalent conversion of multi-family townhouses back to single-family use, co-op and condo combinations, and, more rarely, the combination of multiple townhouses into megamansions. It would be one thing if the extremely rich were simply adding their living spaces to the empty sky, so to speak, but increasingly they are swallowing up middle-class(-ish) spaces as they do it.
This kind of high-end housing consolidation is happening in other neighborhoods, too. Across the park, at 215 West 84th Street, the developer Naftali is trying to demolish a 128-unit market-rate apartment complex to build a new residential tower, a plan that’s been held up by a holdout tenant. His 700-square-foot one-bedroom rents for $3,350 a month. The New York Times noted that while the developer had yet to file building permits for West 84th, the site could accommodate a building about 210 feet tall. On Madison and 86th Street, Naftali is building another 210-foot tower, designed by Stern (the go-to rich-person architect if you want limestone instead of a glass shard), with units that range in price from $9.65 million to $42 million. It contains 12 apartments.